Question: "What are the qualifications of elders and deacons?"
Answer: The Bible has a very clear set of qualifications for a deacon and an elder and their positions in the body of believers. There is a difference between these two terms even though in our society they are quite often used interchangeably. We first see the word that is translated "deacon" used in Acts, although it is veiled. "Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables" (Acts 6:2). The word "serve" is the Greek word "diakoneo," and it comes from a word that means an attendant, a waiter, or one who ministers to another, and it is from this word that we get the word “deacon.” The context here is that there was a dispute in the church in Acts about the way the pooled resources were being allocated, and the apostles were being called upon to arbitrate, and it was a distraction from their ability to give out the gospel. Therefore, a group of seven men were appointed to take care of this task. A deacon, therefore, is one who serves others and especially in the body of born-again believers that make up a local congregation.
The Apostle Paul gives us the qualifications of the bishop or elder in his first letter to Timothy. The Greek word that is used for the office of a bishop or elder is "episkope," and the word used for the one who holds the office is "episkopos." The bishop himself is the superintendent or the officer in general charge or the overseer of the congregation. Our English word "Episcopal" has its basis in the Greek root, which means "knowledge gained by inspection, or seeking out, to look on or to exercise oversight of." Therefore, the bishop or elder was one who was the overseer in charge of the oversight of the local body of believers. This is what we might call a pastor or minister today.
The qualifications of the bishop/elder/pastor are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7: "This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."
The Apostle Paul repeats these qualifications of a bishop/elder/pastor (the same Greek word "episkopos" is used) in his letter to Titus. "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict." (Titus 1:5-9).
The qualifications of a deacon are similar to those of a bishop/elder/pastor. "Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 3:8-13). The word translated "deacon" in this passage is the same Greek word "diakoneo" as is used in Acts 6:2, and therefore we know we are talking about the same office.
There is no ambiguity about these qualifications. Rather, they are simple, straightforward statements. Both the deacon and the bishop/elder/pastor should be a male, the husband of one wife, of sterling character and one who rules his own home in a biblical way. These qualifications also presuppose that one seeking such an office is a born-again believer and walks in submission to God's Word. Being faithful to the Word enables these men to be able to exhort and to teach or convince others of God's truth.
These are not offices to be taken lightly. The Lord Jesus Himself is called the "Shepherd and Bishop of our souls" (1 Peter 2:25). The two words used here are interesting. The word "Shepherd" is the Greek word "poimen," and it is also translated "pastor" (Ephesians 4:11). This poimen is one who tends herds or flocks and is used metaphorically of Christian pastors because pastors should guide as well as feed the flock the bread of life, the Word of God. The word translated "bishop" is the same word, "episkopos," used by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy and in Titus. Paul also instructs Timothy on the things that exemplify the walk of a good minister. Beginning in 1 Timothy 4:11 through 6:2, Paul gives Timothy 12 things that he should "command and teach."
Clearly, these are important offices in the church. The New Testament office of the bishop/elder/pastor seems to replace the office of the prophet and priest of the Old Testament. The office of the prophet was that in which the Lord gave to the prophet and the prophet gave to the people (Numbers 12:6). Therefore, the prophet stood facing the people and represented God. The priest, on the other hand, represented the people before the Lord (Leviticus 1:5-8). Therefore, the priest stood facing God and represented the spiritual needs of the people by offering their sacrifices. Since the canon of Scripture is filled, we have the complete word of God (Revelation 22:18-19). The bishop/elder/pastor holds a dual role. This man not only gives God's word to the people in his congregation, but he is charged with the oversight of the spiritual growth of that congregation. That is a very sobering thing for a man to take on, and it should never be done lightly. Therefore, a biblically unqualified individual should not occupy either the office of a bishop/elder/pastor or a deacon in the body of born-again believers.
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